Surrounded by gorgeous Vietnamese silk and shielded from the hustle and bustle of Da Nang, Vietnam, Amanda Hager discovered her day was shaping up to be a particularly memorable one.
After years on the road, Hager is used to each day being different – very different. But this day was proving especially remarkable as she was fitted for an Ao Dai, a classic Vietnamese dress.
The assistant director for international admissions at the University of St. Thomas was in the middle of her latest trip to Vietnam – a priority country for the university’s international recruitment strategy.
But the day was about more than the business of international admissions. The trip to the dressmaker was a celebration of friendship and genuine relationship.
The mother of Nguyen “Lucky” Phan, an international student from Vietnam, was out to spoil Hager with a gift. She wanted to thank the admissions counselor for her work supporting Lucky's journey to St. Thomas and to celebrate that a second daughter, Anh “Happy,” would soon follow in her footsteps.
“Gifts are a big part of their culture, and she brought me to her own dressmaker,” Hager said. “Being able to bond with someone who is sending their children to us, that’s really special.”
Putting St. Thomas on the map
Hager is one of three international admissions counselors who regularly travel the globe for St. Thomas, zipping from continent to continent, all in the hopes of connecting with future Tommies and their families. This past year, representatives traveled to Norway, Kenya, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Azerbaijan, among others.
No matter where the plane lands, life on the road is not for the faint of heart. Schedules are dizzying, with multiple countries and presentations often booked for a single day. Counselors stay in a variety of hotels and when the schedule is tight, they sleep overnight on the plane.
“I live really close to the airport on purpose – this is my career and it’s something that will always be an important part of my life,” Hager said.
A travel professional, Hager knows the ins and outs of TSA PreCheck, can sniff out a flight deal months in advance, and relies on the support and flexibility of her family.
Trips out of the U.S. last anywhere from two to four weeks. Luggage is packed with the essentials – Hager never leaves without plenty of sunscreen – and several pounds of St. Thomas marketing materials, from pamphlets to banners.
Once they arrive at their intended destination the real work begins: the business of relationships.
In the competitive world of international admissions, counselors each face the same obstacle (and it’s a big one, often of oceanic proportions): showcasing a campus and culture that is thousands of miles away, across date lines and massive bodies of water. So when scheduling a campus tour is out of the question, they rely on first impressions and investing significant face time.
“There are hundreds of schools they could come to in the U.S., and if they can’t come to campus to help make their choice, then they have to trust you as the individual,” Hager said. “It’s all about relationships.”
Finding a deeper connection
With each face-to-face moment crucial, the counselors hardly pick the countries on a whim. Years of planning go into the strategy behind each visit.
At the most basic of levels, the international admissions team targets schools and student populations where the English language is an important part of their primary and secondary education, if not already one of the main languages of the country. There also must be a reasonable expectation that students will be able to fund their studies in the U.S. and will be able to acquire their student visa.
Once those first hurdles are cleared, the St. Thomas team looks deeper. Tim Lewis, associate vice president for global learning and strategy, said securing a specific connection is essential.
“These are not random places. These are targeted places where we believe we have an organic reason to be there – whether that’s a historical connection or there might even be a Catholic connection,” Lewis said. “You can’t just show up and say, ‘Hey, I’m from America. Come here, and we’ll give you a good education.’ It doesn’t work.”
Before taking charge of international efforts at St. Thomas, Lewis headed the Biology Department and visited Kenya as a wildlife biologist. It was this bond that inspired him to kick-start the university’s relationship with the African nation, traveling there alongside Hager.
“(Kenyans) are going to ask, ‘Why are you here?’ and I can tell them about my love of wildlife and my knowledge of some of the historical challenges they’ve had, already knowing a little about their culture,” Lewis said. “The world is a big place. We must have a reason to be there because we can’t be marketable everywhere.”
Building a diverse community
That strategy appears to be working. This fall marks the highest ever enrollment for new international undergraduate students starting at the University of St. Thomas, with 78 students. With 67 countries represented by this past fall’s undergraduate cohort, this is also the university’s most diverse.
Bringing academic and cultural diversity to the University of St. Thomas is the core goal of the international admissions team.
“You can’t replicate this kind of intercultural community,” Hager said. “Of course, our international students get this life-changing experience of four years abroad. But our American students also learn so much from their international counterparts. Our professors learn so much from their international students. You can’t read about that in a book or watch a movie. You have to experience it.”
Once recruits arrive on campus, the job is far from over for Hager and her fellow counselors. Serving as a pillar of transitional support, Hager keeps tabs on her students, offering them a smile, a hug, or additional resources as called for.
“You are the one who has been writing them or Zooming with them, with their mothers, and maybe you’ve even met them in their homes. It’s such a joy to be here when they arrive,” Hager said. “From first visit to graduation, it’s a potential five-to-six-year journey.”
And sometimes that journey comes full circle in ways these counselors could never imagine. Hager’s traditional Vietnamese dress is now getting the finishing touches in Da Nang before it will eventually find its way to Minnesota. Hager plans on wearing it to ASIA Night next year on the St. Paul campus, attending the celebration with both of her recruits, Lucky and Happy.
“It’s just an incredible part of the job. To share in the thing you’ve been telling them about for a long time,” Hager said. “To see that growth and have that bond, it’s awesome.”